The lounge for active-duty military members at Jacksonville International Airport is moving up — literally.
Instead of operating in a room next to the airport’s baggage claim area downstairs, the newly refurbished lounge has reopened in the main corridor upstairs, between ticketing and the concourse.
The Jacksonville Aviation Authority moved the lounge after the USO shut it without notice in October 2022.
The lounge is open to active duty military men and women stuck between flights or awaiting transport to their bases. A reopening ceremony Thursday came on the 82nd anniversary of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.
With up to 30,000 people walking past the lounge daily, Aviation Authority CEO Mark VanLoh said the move upstairs was a no-brainer.
“You know, we didn’t like the location. It’s been in the basement — we call it the basement — for years,” said VanLoh, a U.S. Army veteran himself. “We were always looking for a place to move it. … There used to be a car in here, and we went, ‘You know what? This is a better place for our military lounge,’ and it’s a beautiful location.”
The United Service Organizations, or USO, was founded in early 1941 to provide entertainment, social events and support for U.S. military members and their families around the world. Jacksonville’s USOs were established in 1979 and currently operate facilities at Jacksonville Naval Air Station and Mayport Naval Station.
When the USO shut down the airport lounge, it issued a brief statement saying the organization “routinely evaluates activities to ensure our resources have the greatest positive impact possible.” The lounge apparently was one of a number of centers the USO closed nationwide.
In 2016, the Jacksonville airport welcome center was helping about 2,000 service members a month, according to volunteers. VanLoh said the USO didn’t tell him it was shutting the lounge but it was an easy decision to renovate and reopen it quickly in its original baggage area site.
In the past year, the new “basement” lounge served 600 to 800 service members per month, with 43 veterans and other volunteers helping to run it. Then Barbara Halverstadt, the airport authority’s chief marketing officer, spotted the former car showcase site just yards from the concourse piano.
“This is perfect,” VanLoh said. “I am kind of embarrassed that we did not think of this sooner, and it took someone else to find it and make it happen. It was kind of an open space, and I think there was a concession here for awhile. But all of our craftsmen did the work in there.”
The lounge is open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day including holidays, with more information at the airport website.
As for the former “basement” site, VanLoh said the airport’s newest car rental agency, SIXT, will take it over. SIXT has more than 2,200 locations in the U.S. and around the world.
Lead image: Veterans and active duty members gather in the new military lounge at Jacksonville International Airport on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023. | Dan Scanlan, WJCT News 89.9